Middleman minority refers to cultural minority populations living in complex interethnic situations and to theories about their livelihood and social position. Their occupational niche generally has been the small family firm or self-employed merchant rather than agro-industrial producer or employee of a large corporation. Accordingly, one can speak of Chinese traders in Indonesia, Indian merchants in East Africa, or Korean green grocers in New York City as middleman minorities. As immigrants or sojourners, they fill a niche as service sector intermediaries between producers and consumers or as buffers between the masses and the elite. Moreover, they are received with ambivalence or hostility by the mainstream or host society.
Many scholars view the conflict between middleman minority and others as part of the tension between “pariah capitalism” and “modern capitalism.” Analysts link the presumed universalistic and rational outlook of the latter historically to the rise of Protestantism. Modern capitalists, by this logic, treat all clients by the same ethics and standards.
By contrast, pariah capitalism has been associated with Jews and other Mediterranean and Asian trading peoples. Among its defining characteristics has been an emphasis on frugality, a dual standard of commercial morality, high achievement motivation, and high ingroup morale, among others. A dual standard implies favored treatment for one’s own people but less advantageous terms for others. The host population may interpret such behavior as hucksterism and exploitation and thus construct profoundly negative images of the minority. At the same time, a middleman minority may reinforce its separateness via ritual segregation, requiring or encouraging marriage within the group.
A challenge for middleman minority theory is reconciling its ideal concepts about capitalisms and ethnicities with real-life conditions. Useful in this regard are cases in which some aspects of middleman minority dynamics occur, perhaps, but in modified form. In northern Canada, for example, as fur traders among a largely Indian and Metis clientele, Scots have displayed a high ingroup morale, strong attachment to their homeland, and future time orientation, among other features conventionally associated with pariah capitalism. The host population has viewed their behavior as frugal, exploitative, and ethnocentric. Yet, historically, Scot traders derived from a Protestant cultural background and generally worked for large firms like the Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. They differ from the self-employed trading minorities not so much in their image and behavior, then, as in their position within the larger political economy. Even though they faced some of the hostility of the Jewish and Asian middleman minorities, the possibility of acting upon this hostility by competitors, subordinates, and clients has been limited by the power of the large firm and the Canadian state.
- Bonacich, Edna. 1973. “A Theory of Middleman Minorities.” American Sociological Review 38:584-94.
- Zenner, Walter P. 1991. Minorities in the Middle: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
- Zenner, Walter P. and Robert Jarvenpa. 1980. “Scots in the Northern Fur Trade: A Middleman Minority Perspective.” Ethnic Groups 2:189-210.
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